The current production of Terry Johnson’s Hysteria, directed by the playwright, started its life in Bath last year, before a UK tour and performances at the Hampstead theatre this September. Antony Sher and David Horovitch have been in the cast from the start, while in the London performances Lydia Wilson and Adrian Schiller have replaced Indira Varma and Will Kean. A play capable of attracting actors of that calibre carries high expectations, and sadly in this instance they are not met.
The play is the story of Sigmund Freud meeting Salvador Dali in London towards the end of his life. A woman persistent in meeting Freud and Freud’s physician are added to the story, as is the shadow of Nazi Europe. Questions of denial, regret, change of heart are addressed but not before a bizarre farcical episode that takes most of the first half and leaves the characters with little integrity when it comes to carrying the existential questions.
A farce about Freud, Dali and a woman in the closet is a perfectly good idea for a play, but as a prologue to profoundly important issues of self denial and child abuse is disastrous. Also, as realised in Hysteria, it’s not as funny as it should be: farce is funny when the characters are in a truly desperate position. In Hysteria, there is little that can’t be solved by Freud making his excuses, walking into the bathroom and passing the clothes he already holds.
What we are left with is a wonderful surrealistic dream at the second half and the performances that can’t be faulted: Antony Sher as Freud plays silence like the most eloquent sentence and his defiant clarity in the face of death gives the character an edgy, hugely attractive quality. Lydia Wilson plays a woman of two halves, and succeeds in both, even if the play doesn’t allow her the coherent whole: she is in turns volatile, insolent, neurotic, moving, often within a couple of breaths. Adrian Schiller as Dali tightropes just at the right side of caricature, and his use of language is a delight.
It’s a shame so much talent couldn’t be put to better use.